ABUJA, (Reuters) – The biggest of three Darfur rebel factions and the Sudanese government accepted a peace agreement on Friday but two other rebel factions rejected the deal, casting doubt on whether it would end three years of bloodshed.
Both the government and a Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) faction said they agreed to the terms of the deal despite reservations in order to end the suffering in Sudan’s arid west.
“I accept the document with some reservations concerning the power sharing,” SLA faction leader Minni Arcua Minnawi told Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick and a host of senior diplomats meeting at Obasanjo’s Abuja compound.
A spokesman for Minnawi’s group said the main reservation was what they saw as insufficient representation in parliament.
The deal Minnawi’s SLA faction agreed to was an amended version of an African Union (AU) drafted document produced after two years of talks. Western diplomats reworked parts that draft to win the support of rebels.
These amendments included stronger security guarantees for the rebels. In particular, provisions for rebel fighters to join the Sudanese armed forces were strengthened, as was a requirement Sudan disarm its proxy Janjaweed militias.
The government delegation, which had earlier accepted the AU draft, told a meeting of African heads of state and Western diplomats they would also accept the new terms.
“The priority for us is peace and the priority for us is to alleviate the humanitarian situation in Darfur,” said Majzoub al-Khalifa, head of the government’s negotiating team.
Sam Ibok, head of the AU mediation team, said the government’s main misgiving was the integration of rebels into security forces. Khartoum negotiators said the number of rebels to be absorbed into government security forces was too high.
Mediators clapped and embraced at the end of the session with the government delegation and everyone in the room had a wide smile on their faces despite the all-night marathon talks.
AU chief mediator Salim Ahmed Salim said he would have been happier if all rebel factions had signed but this was nevertheless “a big day for the people of Darfur”.
“In realistic terms the agreement between the government and the SLA Minni is a major development. The two of them working together can make a major contribution to a return to peace and normalcy in Darfur,” Salim told Reuters.
Ibok said: “We are hoping those who are outside the agreements now will not do anything to impede the implementation because if they do there will be a robust response from the AU and the U.N. Security Council.”
A rival faction of the SLA and the smaller Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) earlier rejected the deal citing a wide range of objections.
AU negotiators said they would bring rival SLA faction leader Abdel Wahed Mohammed al-Nur back to the talks to ask him if he would reconsider.
Minnawi has more support among SLA fighters than Nur, observers say, and JEM is marginal in terms of forces on the ground. But it is unclear how useful an agreement signed by only one of the three factions would be.
“JEM frankly doesn’t matter but Abdel Wahed does. There are provisions in the agreement for armed groups that are not signatory to be made to observe the agreement,” said a Western diplomat, who has been involved in the crafting the blueprint.
He said these provisions could offer an avenue to include Nur’s faction during the implementation process and he also added there would likely be U.N. sanctions against those who blocked the agreement.
Three deadlines for a peace deal had passed since Sunday despite intensive efforts to end a war that has killed tens of thousands of people and driven more than 2 million from home.
Rebels took up arms in early 2003 in ethnically mixed Darfur, a region the size of France, over what they saw as neglect by the Arab-dominated central government.
Khartoum used militias, drawn from Arab tribes, to crush the rebellion. A campaign of arson, looting and rape has caused a humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur and the United States labels the violence there “genocide”.
Western governments have called for the 7,000-strong AU mission to be turned over to the United Nations but the government in Khartoum has said it would only consider a U.N. presence in Darfur after a peace agreement.
“This can be a very important day of hope and opportunity for the poor people of Darfur who have been suffering, but it is only a step,” Zoellick told reporters in Abuja.
“It has to be followed through on the ground by the government and the (rebel) movement with support from the African Union mission and we hope from a U.N. force,” he added.